I’m wracking my brain trying to recall where I’d first heard of Chambers’s work. At first, I’d thought it was one of China Miéville’s inspirations, but on further research I couldn’t find any direct mention he’d made. Then I thought perhaps Stephen King had said somewhere that The King in Yellow inspired his work on the Dark Tower series, but once more my research came up empty. Had it been Lovecraft, then? It could have been the mentions in The Whisperer in Darkness, yet I have no recollection of having read that story. The Yellow Sign features in Cthulu-inspired games I’ve played over the years, but there would have been no direct link back to Chambers’s book. Why I purchased this book remains a mystery.
There is something inherently fascinating about a well-designed MacGuffin. Like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or how the force of Immaterium Chaos works in Warhammer 40,000, these black holes in the lore work to effectively enhance the narratives of the characters who encounter them. I quickly forgot the “play that drives people mad” that lurks beneath the world of Chambers’s stories, as the people and their actions were so weird and wonderful. At least, that’s how the book started out. It got less and less weird until ending with a traditional love story. I enjoyed that last tale, Rue Barrée, the most.
Chambers straddled the Victorian and modernist eras. His writing is complex, Gothic, and weighty with the tones of a bygone age. I really should have given the book a second read once I’d finished, as I was only then becoming comfortable with his style. I’ve had similar experiences reading Homer and Dante: it’s like getting into a hot bath, prickly and uncomfortable at first, but after a while I hardly notice, and it’s become soothing and enjoyable.
I can only speculate on what Chambers intended with these stories. I think he was exploring the relationship between art and society, and the nature of art itself. Earlier this year I had an experience where a short story I’d written elicited tears from a reader. Up to that point, more than forty years into my journey as an author, I’d never had such a visceral, personal, and direct reaction to my work. It was profoundly validating. Now, to write something that would break the mind of anyone who reads it? Perhaps Chambers was commenting on the power of the pen to influence the masses. His characters are all struggling artists, or somehow involved in emerging art scenes in Paris, and their actions all reflect the desperation and competition of that world. I would imagine that much of that came easily from the mind of a struggling writer.
This was a difficult book to quantify. I think my main takeaway is that I will have to read it again, in closer detail, and couple those readings with Lovecraft’s work. I also have Carcosa: Tales of Cosmic Horror to get through for next semester, and I will have more to say on that in the spring.